Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Future Of The CD

My morning began with a quick read of the New York Times, and I stumbled upon an article by Jeff Leeds that said, once again, CDs are on their way out.

What's funny is that although we've been hearing about this for the last five or so years, I had a good conversation about this very subject with David Lewis from Play magazine and musician James Velvet just last Thursday.

See, here's the problems with Leeds' piece, according to what we talked about. Leeds uses an R&B group as his main subject, talking about how Universal only signed them to record two songs, not an entire album. He uses this factoid to deduce that albums are on their way out, throwing out the statistic that people download songs 19-1 to whole records. Well, duh!

First of all, the R&B genre has been singles-based for a very long time ... a very long time. And if labels didn't kill off the CD single in the early '90s, they would still be selling. But, you see, a CD single used to cost about $4, or you could buy an entire CD for $12. With such a small price differential, you'd get the whole darn thing. But now, thanks to iTunes, you can get a song for $1. Why wouldn't you only get the one song you like?

But, albums are still selling. The album as a piece of art will never go away, and those are the records that people buy. A brand-new R&B group? Well, those are the ones that sell singles. Leeds mentions this, but doesn't give it enough gravitas.

I guess the key is this: For all the stuff about CDs going away, hundreds of millions were still sold last year. As long as people are buying, the labels will be selling. I don't think it's that much of a jump to say that little CD stores are on the way out, but places like Wal-Mart and BestBuy, stores that sell CDs for cost or a little above cost just to get people in the door? They're not going anywhere.

See, Leeds' main source is someone from Radar Research, a media consulting company that's whole business, for the most part, is based on emerging technologies and understanding them first. You don't think they're going to say the CD is dying? That's what they want. That's what makes them cash.

Anyway, I'm rambling and this is a complicated issue with few definites and no easy answers. But it's something that we should all be talking about. No matter what the future holds, we can be sure that record companies will lag behind and fight it all the way, and that's just stupid and counterproductive.

Labels still have the majority of the power. They need to use it to adjust the paradigm of how we all consume music. That doesn't mean completely change the paradigm, but adjust to incorporate new technologies and not fight the clear changes in the consumers' patterns.

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